When in America, do as Americans don’t

Published: August 26, 2010

In front of the International House in Berkley, CA.

In front of the International House in Berkley, CA. Overlooking Badshahi Mosque in Lahore.

I was spring-cleaning my laptop a few days ago when I came across these two pictures. Normally, I wouldn’t have even noticed them buried in virtual stack loads on my hard drive, the blessing and bane of digital photography. But my general sense of awareness about “culture” and “identity” somewhat heightened of late, I paused to look, and was struck by the utter incongruity of it all. Not just the photographs, but of myself – in Pakistan, an English-sprouting, skinny-jean-wearing junk-food-eating, American Idol-watching “Westerner”, and in America, a jingly, jangly, Urdu-priding, chai-chugging, public transport-taking “Pakistani”.

I moved to California from Pakistan in 2007 to start graduate school at UC Berkeley. Though I had come as a student, I experienced much of what a new immigrant experiences – curiosity, bewilderment, loneliness, discrimination, independence, and – unexpectedly enough – a conscious need to re-affirm my “identity”. During the 22 years I lived in Pakistan, this had only occurred to me on a handful of occasions – cricket matches against India, for example, or when the enormous green-and-white flags appeared on 14th August, Independence Day, only to disappear a day later.

At the upper-class, English-medium, private university in Lahore I attended for my Bachelor’s, there was a course called “Pakistan Studies: Culture & Heritage” that we were required to take before graduating. Ironically, it is in this class that we were thoroughly “de-nationalized”. In this class, taught by a radical Marxist Yale-educated professor, we learnt there was no such thing as a “Pakistani”.

Then what was Pakistan? Little more than a project of India’s Muslim intellectuals, feudal elite and the British colonial government. The very concept of “nation-state” was foreign to the Indian subcontinent; it was forced upon us by the British, and Pakistan was the direct result. At independence in 1947, less than 10% of the people in Pakistan actually spoke Urdu, the national language; most spoke regional languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, or – Bengali! Yes, because Bangladesh used to be a part of Pakistan, until it seceded in 1971, which of course didn’t do much for consolidating our national identity.

Add to that the fact of the vast economic disparity in the country, 6th most populous in the world, where 1/4th of the people live below the poverty line and 54% have no basic education – I, who started learning English at age 4 and grew up watching Disney cartoons, had a computer at home ever since I can remember, ate out with friends every weekend at American Pizza Huts dressed in jeans and cute tops because that’s what was cool and shalwar kameez was something only our mothers wore or we kept for formal occasions – I was obviously the exception.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy my culture, as I knew it. I loved it, yes; I loved my traditional embroidery, the block-print and mirror-work, the silver jewelry. I loved my home-cooked food, the grand weddings, the Mughal architecture, Ramadan and Eid, sufi-rock; but I loved it, like a visitor, like a curious traveler, collecting souvenirs, taking pictures. Pakistan was a colorful, exotic TV series, which I could switch on whenever I wanted, and switch off whenever the beggars and child laborers and hungry people came on.

My world was very different. Did I really know anything beyond it? No.

Then, I came to America, the place where what little “nationality” I had might have melted away completely. But quite the opposite happened.

I remember the funny warm feeling I got when I saw the first restaurant sign that said “Pakistani cuisine” in Berkeley (later to discover that desi or South Asian food was a local favorite and that there were hundreds of such restaurants all over the Bay Area). “Hey, that’s my place!” I would think with pride, and proudly order in Urdu, and tell him to make it extra spicy, because of course that’s what I was used to. I would stare at the food, my food, that all these foreigners, these Americans seemed to enjoy so much, mystified at the sight of them eating with their hands, tearing the naan into morsels and scooping up the bhindi or aaloo gobi – food so utterly commonplace that you couldn’t find it at even a roadside stall back in Lahore.

I felt a surge of joy at taxi rides, when I would invariably get a Pakistani or Indian driver (yes, Indian counted too, but that’s another complex affinity, another story). I would invariably smile at any man or woman I passed who looked desi to me – maybe I would talk to them at the bus stop or in a store – and how thrilled I was if they understood Urdu!

Perhaps the most bizarre thing was paying $20 to dance bhangra at a San Francisco club called “Rickshaw Stop”. A bhangra club? That didn’t make any sense! Bhangra was what guys did. They did it at weddings to live drummers, or in Punjabi music videos, or in the villages. You didn’t dance bhangra for any other reason. And how would a girl dance bhangra in the first place? Why would you ever even need a lesson in bhangra? It was all too confusing.

But when I saw what it was all about, I realized with a start: this was as much foreign to me as to everyone else in that room. This was bhangra? This incredible complicated aerobic gymnastic crazy sweaty choreographed performance that all these goras (literally, “white people”, but meaning any Westerner) seemed to be enjoying out of their minds?

Well, I decided I wanted in – I decided that this was mine, it was mine to own, it was Pakistani, and I could do it better than any of these goras because this is what we did back in Pakistan, didn’t we? And everyone believed me.

Why did I need to re-affirm my difference, my uniqueness, my identity in the melting pot? Why did I feel more Pakistani in America? I don’t really know. Is it because in this country, “ethnicness” is generally prized, coveted, glorified? Or, as a human being, you struggle to identify with a group because you find strength in groups, so you meet, talk to and befriend people you may never even have acknowledged back home – just for the color of their passport? Is that hypocrisy?

In Pakistan, I would never talk to my cab driver. I’ve never dream of taking a cab in Pakistan by myself. But here – it is a bonding experience. Here, I trust a desi cab driver over all others. He might have been a criminal back home, for all I know. But in America, it doesn’t matter. We are the same.

And sometimes I find myself thinking – if all Pakistanis moved to the US, we might actually be a nation – a much better nation! We would work hard, we wouldn’t have to bribe or take bribes to make our way in life, and we could communicate with each other, without suspicion or pretense or awkward social barriers.

But the question is, is it even real? Or do we find this strange affinity only because we stereotype ourselves to fit American expectations and tastes, shaking hands and serving them chicken tikka masala while pretending its “authentic”?

The last vestige of nationality probably lies in the accent. The moment people stop asking you what part of the world you’re from when you talk to them – you’re lost. You’ve become American. You drop your T’s. You’ve successfully “assimilated”. And for this confused “Westernized” desi, for whatever illogical irrational reason, that’s not a compliment.

This post was originally published here.


Manal Khan

A freelance writer and photographer based in Madrid, Spain, who loves old cities, tall trees, dark chocolate, and being inspired. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and a Lahore native. Manal blogs at "Windswept Words" (manalkhan.wordpress.com)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • zff

    Good job. Recommend

  • B


  • Ghausia

    I’m very, very, very shallow for saying this, but I just love the knit hat you’re wearing. This was just a lovely article, it was great reading it. And you made a valid point, my dad’s constantly on my case because my predominant language is English (only because I slur in Urdu and get mocked though). When I moved to DHA, I was simply baffled at the girls I saw there. I wear jeans a lot too, but the girls here just never seem to take them off. I mean, what’s wrong with shalwar kamiz and a beautifully embroidered dupatta? I love wearing shalwar kamiz, its part of who I am. I love my desi food and scoff at the creamy flavourless pasta and lasagne people eat. We’re very removed from our national and cultural identity. We celebrate Holi and Basant, but moan and groan for having to visit relatives on Eid. What’s wrong with us?Recommend

  • Azka

    its like you’re clutching at straws.Recommend

  • Saleem Kirla
  • http://journelog.wordpress.com ehsun

    This is probably the best written blogg on this site.Recommend

  • Zuhaib

    i believe everyone of us having same feelings deep down inside our heart…..i doRecommend

  • Taimur

    Really liked your article and loved the way u ve related things.:) Nicely done!Recommend

  • http://www.thebalochhal.com Malik Siraj Akbar

    A fantastic blog entry. I loved reading every part of it. Your observations do not only apply to Pakistanis versus Pakistanis but the whole South Asian or even middle eastern region. Here in the US, one would get delighted not only by seeing a Pakistani but we are very also very good friends with the Indians. Getting some Pakistani stuff at a middle eastern grocery store comes like a fresh breeze.
    You have a point which I would put the other way: Indians and Pakistanis (include Afghans and Bengalis too) perhaps have to come to the US to learn how similar they are and go back to South Asia to know how dissimilar they look.
    I liked the reference to the cab driver. He may have been a criminal back home but more reliable before us. These are very strange feelings but you have put them so elegantly. Recommend

  • http://manalkhan.wordpress.com manal

    thanks for your comments, guys! this is my first post on this site and i am greatly encouraged. i normally write on my blog (http://manalkhan.wordpress.com), but hopefully you’ll see more stuff over here as well. of course, in a limited number of words, there is only so much depth you can go to!Recommend

  • http://www.thebalochhal.com Malik Siraj Akbar

    A fantastic blog entry. I loved reading every part of it. Your observations do not only apply to Pakistanis versus Pakistanis but the whole of South Asian and middle eastern region. Here in the US, one would get delighted not only by seeing a Pakistani but we are also very good friends with the Indians, Afghans and Bengalis.
    Getting some Pakistani stuff at a middle eastern grocery store comes like a fresh breeze.
    You have a point which I would put the other way: Indains and Pakistani (including Afghans and Bengalis) perhaps have to come to the US or UK to learn how similar they are and go back to South Asia to recall their dissimilarities.
    I liked the reference to the cab drivers. He may have been a criminal back home but more trustworhty for us as compared to the others only because of his color or language. These are very strange feelings but you have put them together so elegantly. Brovo~!Recommend

  • Juvaria

    one of the best published here. well done!Recommend

  • hakeem

    Nice..thanks for sharingRecommend

  • dawood

    very impressive good to see 1 more pakistani!!!Recommend

  • BT

    How refreshing! excellent work. I know the other bloggers could learn a thing or two from you. Recommend

  • Saubia

    Wonderful piece! I can totally relate.. Though I grew up in the US I can’t help but feel that I would not feel as Pakistani as I do being here. Recommend

  • Mahreen

    Umm so eating Pakistani food and dancing to bhangra is how you reaffirm your being Pakistani in the US? Seems a bit out of touch when you look at how bad things are at homeRecommend

  • Faraz

    A very well written article, which actually speaks volume about the Pakistani community in America.

    I love the part, where you sum it all up and have very rightly said, if we all pakistanis come to America, we might become a NATION.

    this is a check for ourselves.
    love reading it.Recommend

  • http://ykhan.wordpress.com Yasser

    indeed a good read for me, so plain and simple :)Recommend

  • http://facebook.com/bilal.kausar Bilal Kausar


  • Sam

    total crap and rubbish……totally a hypocratic story based on trash…..Recommend


    Nice Effort Keep it up…!Recommend


    We need such inspirations as V r deeply drowning in all aspects..!
    May Almighty show us the right Path.Recommend

  • Schazad

    A very well written blog. I can relate to some of it and it did bring tears to my eyes. I can see ur blog to be a script for a nice movie with some masala added to it. Keep on writing, plz.Recommend

  • Usama

    Simply Amazing..!Recommend

  • http://www.beautyinnsalon.com Gulshan Munir

    very beautifully written. I enjoyed every bit of it. America and Pakistan have totally different culture but being american in america is not completely wrong but always remember our cultureRecommend

  • Imran

    I felt as if this article was written about me. I have been going through the same emotions that you mentioned in the article ever since I came to the US for my undergrad in 2007.
    When I was in Pakistan, I wore shalwar kameez, maybe, once a year. But in the US, I was surprised to see that I proudly sported the orange kurta and white shalwar that my mom packed with my things. It’s as if I want to show off my culture to the goras.
    I,too, feel a strange kinship with all the desi people I meet (even Indians), and I, too, understand that warm feeling that you were talking about when you saw the Pakistani restaurant when you first arrived in Berkeley.
    Now that I’m away from home, I miss those things that we take for granted in Pakistan. I miss my country very much. Recommend

  • http://www.LiaquatAli.com Liaquat Ali

    Good article. Thanks for sharing Manal.Recommend

  • OP

    “…serving them chicken tikka masala while pretending its “authentic” “…nicely put, it’s supposed to be Britain’s favourite dish though its not authentic as all!Recommend

  • Dia

    Beautifully written. This is exactly how one feels when away from one’s country. Recommend

  • kazim agha

    nice writeRecommend

  • Kay

    the first post apart from ones on veena malik that i like on this website ;)
    like the last part of it…abt how all of us can be a much better nation if we all just moved to the US or the UK maybe…Recommend

  • MSP

    If all Pakistanis moved to the US, there would be no Pakistan.

    However, if all Pakistanis living abroad moved back to Pakistan, we’d have a much better nation.Recommend